Child Nutrition Assistant Denise Ballentine passes out lunches to pre-K students at Blue Ridge School in Cashiers. The Jackson County school is one of the few in the state with a public pre-K program. Since the school also qualifies for a blanket free-lunch program for all attendees, pre-K students benefit from the same free lunch as the rest of the children. Nick Haseloff / Carolina Public Press

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A majority of North Carolina parents lack the financial resources to provide school lunches for their children without assistance, according to federal data, a situation that has worsened in recent years.

Most children in North Carolina participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price school lunches to families facing financial hardship. In the 2016-17 school year, 59.8 percent of public school students in the state received lunches through this program, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the level of participation a decade earlier.

Projections from North Carolina public school administrators for the 2018-19 school year show that a high percentage of students will continue to benefit from the program, provided they apply, which they must do each year.

While some parents make a conscious decision not to participate in the lunch program despite being eligible, school nutrition experts across the state told Carolina Public Press that lack of knowledge about the program or forgetting to reapply are the biggest reasons that children miss out on the meals.

“One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is that parents don’t know that they have to reapply every year for the free and reduced lunch program,” said Rebecca Bryan, an administrator with Child Nutrition Services for the Wake County Public School System.

The school district in Wake County is the largest in the state. Its percentage of students enrolled in the program largely reflects the same ratio as the state as a whole. All parents of students in the district are sent information at the beginning of every school year about how to apply for free or reduced-price school lunches.

“It’s really easy to apply online,” Bryan said. “If they don’t apply before the start of the school year, their child only receives a couple of day’s worth of free lunch before they’re served alternative meals mainly consisting of just fruits and vegetables. I really urge all of the parents that need it to apply.”

Second-grade assistant Kari Reed keeps the eating area clean as students eat their lunch at Blue Ridge School in Cashiers in Jackson County. Nick Haseloff / Carolina Public Press

Blanket approval for some schools

According to Jeff Wyant, assistant principal at Blue Ridge School, a public pre-K through early college school in Cashiers in Jackson County, the breakfasts and lunches that some students receive at the small rural school are the only meals they will eat that day.

“The free and reduced lunch program we provide is really beneficial to the people of our community,” Wyant said.

“We’re what you would call a high-needs school. A lot of the jobs in this area are seasonal, and families can’t afford to pay for school lunches every day.”

Blue Ridge School is registered under the Community Eligibility Provision program provided by the federal government. Enrollment in this program means that a high-enough percentage of the school’s students would have qualified for free or reduced-price lunches that the school is issued a blanket grant that ensures none of its students need to pay for school lunches.

“We only have around 400 students, and the CEP program just makes it easier on everyone,” said Tina Coggins, child nutrition manager for Blue Ridge School. “We’ve been a part of the program for four years and we’ll reapply after it runs out at the end of this year.”

While Blue Ridge School is one of only two schools that qualify for the CEP program in the Jackson County School District, other districts in the state apply as a whole so that all of their schools can benefit.

“It really creates less burden as a district,” said Amy Stanley, director of nutrition services at Bladen County Schools and president of the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina.

“When all of our schools qualify under the district, we gain a lot of benefits. There’s no parents’ need to fill out applications, there’s no stigma surrounding getting a free lunch for the students, and there’s no unpaid charges.”

According to Stanley, although the school lunches that students in the Bladen County district receive bear no cost to families, they have all the same varieties of foods available in other districts across the state and follow all the same U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.

Changing nutritional standards

“There’s been a move toward less processed food in school lunches, but many schools don’t have the necessary budgets to make lunches healthier,” said Amelia Huelskamp, assistant professor at the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences at UNC Wilmington.

“In the past, the contents of school lunches used to be focused strongly on processed food and meats such as poultry and pork. There’s been some upset from parents because schools are moving away from more of these ‘traditional’ foods.”

Some parents are upset that their children will not receive the same school lunches that they were used to because of more stringent nutrition standards.

But data shows even more parents are worried about their children not receiving any lunch at all without the program.

First-grade teacher Wendy Stewart hands meals to her students at Blue Ridge School in Cashiers. The Jackson County school has 170 students enrolled in grades kindergarten to six. Nick Haseloff / Carolina Public Press

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Nick Haseloff

Nick Haseloff is a contributor to Carolina Public Press. Contact him at nicholas.haseloff@gmail.com

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